Dasha’s Year Without Her Mom: A Review

A Year Without Mom

Dasha Tolstikova

Groundwood Books, 2015

The Story: Dasha is twelve years old, and lives in Moscow with her mom and her grandparents. Dasha’s mother gets into graduate school in America, which results in Dasha being left behind in Russia with her grandparents for a year. The graphic novel follows the highs and lows of Dasha’s year without her mom, in which she largely takes care of herself and must learn to live with the constant sadness of being separated from her mother.

What Wallace and I Think: This is illustrator Tolstikova’s first book, and is a memoir of a year in Tolstikova’s childhood. The graphic novel does not follow a standard narrative structure, but instead reads somewhat like Dasha’s journal detailing the significant incidents that happened the year her mother was away. There is a child-like quality to the style of Tolstikova’s illustrations, which lends to the feel that it is twelve-year-old Dasha describing this year to the reader.

I found the character of Dasha extremely appealing. She is strong in her sadness, self-reliant, and creative. Apart from her mother leaving, there are several events which are emotionally taxing for Dasha: she develops her first crush on an older boy who is already dating an impossibly sophisticated and cool girl (she wears black nail polish AND smokes in the school hallways! How is Dasha supposed to compete with that?!); she is ignored by her two best friends due to their jealousy over Dasha being placed in an advanced math class; she decides to apply to a better school, and undertakes the application process (studying for the exams, taking the exams, developing her extracurricular resume) without any help from her grandparents (indeed she doesn’t even think to tell her grandparents what she is undertaking); and she must navigate a visit from her absentee father. Dasha traverses these landmines largely all on her own, not because there is no one to help her, but because she is so self-reliant she doesn’t think to ask for help (both her strength and weakness). She is a strong character, and though there are blacked out pages with the words “Dark Days,” and sometimes Dasha only has the energy and strength to hide in her bed, she is never defeated and shows her strength in being able to continue on in the midst of sadness.

Dasha’s family is equally as engaging, and presents strong female characters. I found it inspiring to have a mother character who follows her dreams. Though Dasha is sad to be separated from her mother for a year, she does not begrudge her mom’s attempt to pursue her passions. Likewise, her mother does all she can to stay present in Dasha’s life when away, and after her year away, decides she cannot be separated from her daughter any longer and takes Dasha back to American with her. Dasha’s grandmother is another interesting character: she’s a writer who takes Dasha to writers’ retreats; she has cool journalist, writer, artist and intellectual friends that live all over the world; and she encourages Dasha’s creativity by putting her in art classes. When Dasha finally opens up to her grandmother about her impossible first-love, her grandmother does not belittle her feelings (by saying something like, oh it’s just puppy love, you’ll get over it) but takes Dasha’s experience seriously and offers comfort.

Though this book is marketed as young adult, I think the graphic novel would be enjoyed by readers in elementary school as well. The graphic novel is beautiful and offers a narrative style and story that is refreshing so that, like so many good children’s and YA books, I believe it could be read and enjoyed by a vast age range.

Reading with wallace Logo Transparent 600px

Advertisements

Keep Dreaming, Brown Girl

Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson

The Story: Winner of the Newbery Honor, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Young Adult Fiction, Woodson’s novel has already made quite the splash. Written completely in verse, this novel is an autobiographical account of the author’s childhood growing up between South Carolina and Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s. Focus is placed on Jacqueline’s early childhood, from her birth to her first few grades in elementary school when she discovers her passion for writing, stories, and making a difference in her world.

What Wallace and I Think: Wow. This novel is amazing! It’s marketed as a young adult book, which I hate to say, is almost too bad. I know there are many “adults” that turn their noses up to YA lit, and would be missing out in the case of Woodson’s novel. So, if you usually do shy away from anything with a YA label, muster the courage and read this book!

Woodson’s novel deals artfully with issues of racism, family, divorce, education, and finding and following your passion. I will admit I was a little hesitant to read this book knowing it was all written in verse. I assumed it would take some “work” to get through the book, as I find it difficult to read poetry for extended periods of time. However, the verse in Brown Girl Dreaming is extremely easy to read, and although is somewhat disjointed, does provide us with a linear story-line that makes it extremely readable. I’m going to share some sections with you, just to prove it.

Being written in verse made this novel perhaps one of the most beautiful narratives I have lately read. There were sections that touched my heart so deeply that I found myself rereading the section over a few times before moving on. For example, this small section keeps haunting me days after reading:

I do not know if these hands will become / Malcolm’s–raised and fisted / Or Martin’s–open and asking / or James’s–curled around a pen. / I do not know if these hands will be / Rosa’s / or Ruby’s / gently gloved / and fiercely folded / calmy in a lap, / on a desk, / around a book, / ready / to change the world . . . Woodson 5

This gave me chills, friends! Several tears were shed on my part, as well as some wide smiles and silent laughs. I also loved her descriptions of places. She conveys South Carolina in an almost mythical and nostalgic tone, while also being able to communicate the dangers of being black in the south during the 1960s and 70s.

And the air is what I’ll remember. / Even once we move to New York. / It always smelled like like, my mothers says. / Wet grass and pine. / Like memory. Woodson 95-6

Likewise, if South Carolina is based in nature, Brooklyn is felt to be gritty and concret, yet offering more opportuities.

Here there is only gray rock, cold / and treeless as a bad dream. Who could love / this place– where no pine trees grow, / no porch swings moves / with the weight of / your grandmother. Woodson 143

Although I have argued that this novel should not be read by only children and young adults, it is such an important work that offers a diverse narrative within a still very white-washed literary canon, that it is especially important for children and youth to read. Walter Dean Myers in his essay “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” published in The New York Times, describes that in the books he read while growing up:

I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the ‘black’ representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me. Myers 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming is a step forward in developing children’s and YA literature into more of a mosaic by having more voices tell new and different stories. Myers argues books that offer more than one type of narrative humanizes those to fall outside the Eurocentric norm, and that for himself, they gave him “the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map” (Myers 2014). That is the potential power reading Brown Girl Dreaming can have on younger readers: it can validate experience and tell them their lives and stories matter and are important; it can encourage children to enter into the dialogue themselves and become active participants in their own lives. This is no small accomplishment.

Work Cited

Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. Print.

Huggers Wanted: Review of Simona Ciraolo’s Hug Me

Hug Me

Simona Ciraolo

Flying Eye Books 2014

The Story: Felipe the cactus wants a hug, but his family isn’t the touchy-feely types. Felipe sets off to find a friend, but being a cactus, it seems impossible to find someone who wants to get close. After hurting a balloon and bringing shame onto his family, Felipe gives up his search for a friend and lives alone. Until, one day, he finds someone as lonely as himself, the perfect friend who doesn’t mind Felipe’s prickles! And Felipe gets the hug he’s always wanted.

What Wallace and I Think: This picturebook is hilarious for children and the adults reading to them. If you love clever word play as much as I do, the humour starts with the paratext as the book opens with labelled portraits of Felipe’s family which include: Aunt Obessa, Bigbrotherus Pricklearum, Cuginus Cleistocactus. There’s the hilarious punchline when Felipe is growing closer and closer with his potential balloon friend, which relies on the drama of turning the next page to find an angry cacti family member holding a newspaper with the front page reading “Cacti House Scandal. Cactus Attack. Balloon in Hospital” (npg).

The crayon heavy art is fun and in a kid-like style, making it appealing to young readers. There is little text, so the colorful images do the heavy lifting when telling the story, making it ideal for very young readers.

My only complaint is that the metaphor of the cactus wanting a hug falls apart for me. From the back cover, it seems like the book addresses what it is like to not get the love and attention you need from your family. But then Felipe continues to be rejected because he is a cactus. So then could this be a larger comment on prejudice? On assuming someone is one way because of their family?! Or am I being too much of an English Major, and it’s really just about a walking and talking cactus. You decide.

Metaphor aside, this is a fun, colorful, feel-good book little ones will love to have read to them by their favorite hugger.

Review of Migrant

Migrant (2011)

Written by Maxine Trottier, Art by Isabelle Arsenault

0888999755

The Story: Anna feels like a bird because her family moves north in the spring and south in the fall. Her Mennonite family lives in Mexico during the winter, and travels all the way up to Canada in the summer to work on farms harvesting fruit and vegetables. Anna often wonders what it would be like to stay in one place.

Maxine Trottier explains that people like Anna’s family helped to build Canada and the United States (and continue to), and that they live difficult lives. Often, because their first language is Low German, they cannot understand English or Spanish. The houses that are available for rent are shabby and expensive. There is no union to protect these migrant workers, and they are often not well received by employers or communities. Trottier argues that “We all need to remember just how our country was built,” (npg) and it can only be assumed that Trottier hopes to remind us of this history through the picturebook Migrant.

What Wallace and I Think: Migrant is an ideal example of how important paratext often is with picturebooks. Without the write-up on the hardcover flaps, and the short history lesson on the endpapers, few children or adult readers would know what the book is actually historically addressing. The picturebook’s text and images are filled with Anna comparing her life to various animals: she feels like a jack rabbit who live in abandoned burrows; she feels like a bee during the day; at night she is like a kitten snuggled under a single blanket with her sisters (For any teachers out there, this book could be a perfect tool in teaching simile, metaphor, and/or illustrated metaphor to students). In the main text there is no mention of her family being Mennonite, though they do wear traditional Mennonite clothing. Though Anna briefly explains her family moves from the south to north and back again (through the metaphor of her family being like geese), we are not told the south is Mexico and the north is Canada. The book could have perhaps benefited from more context being worked into the main text, or, the explanation that ends the book may have been better utilized opening the book.

However, taking the paratext into context, Migrant tells a unique story opening readers and listeners to a different way of life, clearly not linked to just specifically Mennonite migrant workers, but migrant or seasonal workers in general. Trottier makes it clear in her explanation that she wanted to write this story to bring issues of social justice to the surface: “Migrants deserve safe working and living conditions. They deserve recognition for an honest day’s labour. They should be treated with the same respect that is extended to citizens and visitors alike” (npg). Hopefully reading this book to children can spark some interesting discussion surrounding social justice, and the life of migrant workers.

As with so many picturebooks Isabelle Arsenault has illustrated, in the case of Migrant, it is Arsenault’s art which both cements the message to the history, as well as allows the text to transcend the historical background. Arsensault’s illustrations are complex and whimsical, making the reading of this book largely appealing to younger children. Patterns and shapes are repeated throughout the book, linking Anna’s dream world to reality. For example, after imagining her family as geese (geese are drawn wearing hats and head scarfs), the silhouette of the geese is repeated on the following page in the shadows of Anna’s actual family. Collaged triangles that decorate the front and back matter are repeated in the quilts Anna’s brothers and sisters sleep under. Such repetitions visually connect the textual metaphors and similes to one another, blurring the boundaries between literary language and reality. And, personally, I find the red, orange and blue color scheme and the combination of paper collage and crayon drawings visually appealing. Whether or not a child can yet grasp the call for social justice, the art will be appealing.

While I feel the art could engage younger readers, I think the book’s message makes Migrant best suited to children 5 and older. I could see the picturebook being a great discussion and teaching tool in any elementary grade. I give the book a 4/5

Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia Wolf

Virginia Wolf

Kyo Maclear (Author) and Isabelle Arsenault (illustrator)

VirginiaWolf-Cover-250px1

The Story: Vanessa and Virginia are sisters. Sometimes Virginia is in a “wolfish” mood: she growls and howls and acts very strange. Vanessa does everything she can think of to cure Virginia’s mood, but nothing works. One day Virginia tells Vanessa about an imaginary, happy place called Bloomsberry, which gives Vanessa a wonderful idea! With her paint brush in hand, Vanessa brings Bloomsberry to life by painting on the walls and transforming them into a beautiful garden. Virginia soon picks up her own paint brush and undergoes a transformation of her own.

What Wallace and I Think: I got to hear Kyo Maclear talk about this picturebook last year. She was kind enough to give a talk to my supervisor’s picturebook class. She was even kinder to talk to me one on one, and we had a great discussion about my research, and how she wants to start a PhD on a similar topic. She was soft-spoken, intelligent, and just, well, as I said, KIND. So, as you can tell, I’m now a Kyo fan for life.

She told us the picture book was born out of her desire to talk about mental health with children. There is still such a stigma attached to issues of mental health, and Maclear expressed that maybe a way to fight the stigma is to get people talking about mental health issues as early as possible. The result is a beautiful picture book that tells three profound stories:

  1. A story of friendship between siblings.

At the most basic level, this story is about the importance of family support, and the love shared between siblings. The images are beautiful, the text is lovely. It is simply a delight to read.

  1. A story loosely based on the real life sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

The picture book also provides the opportunity to introduce children to important cultural figures: author Virginia Woolf, her sister and artist Vanessa Bell, and The Bloomsbury group. As I have said in other posts, intextuality is important in early children’s literature, for it can spark later curiosity. Maybe when your little one is a teenager they’ll be more inclined to pick up Mrs. Dalloway because they’ve already been introduced to Woolf. And hey, if you’re a parent that finds Virginia’s name familiar, but haven’t heard of Vanessa or the Bloomsbury group, maybe your own curiosity will be piqued

I had someone say to me: “this not a great way to talk about depression with children, because they can find out that Virginia Woolf committed suicide, and that could spark the idea to do the same if they’re depressed.” This kind of comment infuriates me. First, it depicts children as sponges that passively receive information. Children are not passive. Don’t make them passive! They have brains. Encourage them to use their brains! When they can talk, they want to talk to you about things that matter, like depression. This comment does an injustice to children. Second, as someone who has struggled with depression her whole life, I can tell you from personal experience that learning about people like Virginia Woolf (who I learned about when I was a young teenager and she meant a lot to me), who were brilliant and created beautiful things, made me stop believing that I was weak, and that I was alone. And I’m still here because I was inspired by Woolf’s life, not her death. Your child, hopefully when they’re much older, are going to learn about suicide. Don’t you want to give them a foundation, the mental fortitude to talk about such things, so they aren’t overwhelmed later?

  1. A story that can begin conversations with children about feeling “wolfish”

I’ve spoken to a few teachers about their experiences of reading this picture book to their classes, and they were blown away with the types of conversations the reading provoked. The students shared stories of when their own siblings, and parents, and friends have felt “wolfish.” They discussed things they did to help their loved ones, and how it felt to have a loved one struggle in this way. Others talked about feeling wolfish themselves, what helps them when they’re feeling this way, and what they wished their loved ones would do for them when they’re feeling this way. This is powerful! The picturebook gave these children the tools to talk about a subject that is insanely hard to talk about.

I would recommend reading this picturebook to even the youngest of children, as even if they’re too young to talk to you about feeling wolfish, the pictures are beautiful. It is a picturebook that children will understanding more deeply the older they get. And like I said, why not give children the tools to talk about something like depression as early as possible?

I give this picturebook a 5/5